Friday, October 13, 2006

Notes and photos from the "See Jane" Panel


From right to left: Dean De Blois, Jenny Lerew, Geena Davis, Kevin Koch, Brenda Chapman, Jill Culton and Fred Seibert

Here's a summary of some of last night's panel. We have a recording of the first half hour of the event, but these snippets are taken from Steve's notes, so there are some inaccuracies and paraphrasing. The photos were taken by Jeff Massie.

I started the panel by asking Geena to describe where See Jane came from, and to summarize their first study. . .

Geena Davis: "See Jane" started when I noticed, while watching G-rated movies and shows with my daughter, and I was stunned to see there was still a huge gender imbalance, pretty much when I was a kid and the only female Loony Toons character was Granny who's job was to leave. I did my own unscientific study, and the ratio of males to females was 4 or 5 to 1. And I'm sure you've heard the adage: "Girls and women will watch stories about men and boys, but boys won't watch stories about we have to make the majority of our movies about male characters." But I started thinking: "What if kids were exposed to G-rated films where females took up half the space?" And I decided I wanted to form "See Jane" to try to do something about that...

We commisioned the largest study ever done G-rated film at Anenberg, and took the top grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005...and the results confirmed my unscientific analysis. The ratio was about three to one, male to female characters, and if you take into account all the townspeople and the whole environment, the percentages are around 70% People come up to me all the time and say: "Well, things are getting better, right?"The answer is "No." The reality is, things aren't getting better. Gender disparity happens in G-rated films made by all companies, and the data is exactly the same if you compare films from 1990-1995 to those from 2000-2005. All entities who made G-rated films across the board were equally guilty. In the final analysis, only 7% of the films had anything close to gender parity.

Fred Seibert: I'm not at all surprised. I've been in the business for fifteen years, and one of the first reactions I had in the business was how much it kind of hated everybody but old white men. It hated young white men, black people, women, any people of color, anybody who wasn't an old white man. The films and the programming are a reflection of the people who are making it, and a reflection of the people making the I don't think any of us are really surprised.

Brenda Chapman: It doesn't surprise me, either. I've been in the industry for sixteen years. In 1990, there were 4-5 women in my CalArts class of ninety [I recall that Brenda's class was much smaller, like 40]. So this points, to me, to an even bigger issue. It seems to me that a lot of women are not even interested in animation, at least character animation, which is considered the commercial aspect. What's interesting to me is, back then, in experimental animation, 3/4 of the students were women. Go figure. (Jill and Jenny, also recalled that females made up less than 10% of their classes at CalArts.) Of portfolios we receive at Pixar, less than 10% are from women.

Jill Culton: I was the token female when I started in the business. Very few women seemed to be interested in character animation, though a lot more were interested in experimental.

Jenny Lerew: I fell between Brenda and Jill at Cal Arts, in 1987. I was asked from my first week at Warner Bros. Animation in 1989, where I worked on "Tiny Tunes" I was asked almost from the first week I was there: "Why are so few women in the business?" I have no idea. In television there are more women working in story, in series and in home-video. There's a little more opportunity there, and I don't know why that's the case.

Those things are very script driven, and they don't have as much control as we do in features in shaping the story. But you're always at the mercy of who's driving the story. A lot of the times the goals that I have working in story is exactly as the guys have...we got into this business for exactly the same reasons. When I was a girl who just identified with boy cartoon characters because that's what there were when I grew up. I pretended to be Mowgli as a kid, running around the house in my underpants. And I think small girls still do that...

Dean De Blois: My theory is that boys hang onto their childhoods, and a fascination with comic books changes to a fascination with animation. A little bit of a geekiness. If you walk around the studios' cubicles you'll find the toys are all collected. But I'm very appreicate of all the women we work with. In my first year of college there were maybe three women in my class. Women seemed to go into the fine art aspect. After Gina's presentation I realize just how striking the disparity is.

Chris Sanders and I channeled women for "Lilo and Stitch." "Lilo and Stitch" started as a story (by Chris) about an alien in a forest with forest animals. And he learned to make animal and forest sounds. Then the story line became the alien with a little boy in Kansas, then a little girl in Hawaii. [Dean didn't remember any particular pressure to "boy up" the film, and the transition to a girl character came naturally out of the story development. ]

Jill Culton: I was developing Monsters, Inc" at the same time "Lilo and Stitch" was in development. We had developed "Monsters, Inc." as a relationship between a father and a little girl, it just felt right. But Disney suggested that the human kid character in "Monsters, Inc." be changed from a little girl to a little boy. I found out later Disney was afraid it would be too much like "Lilo and Stitch"...

Brenda Chapman: At the start of my career, I was the only woman in the story department at Disney, but at that time we were working on "Princess movies" with strong female leads, so at the time there didn't seem to be any need to strengthen other female roles...most of the funny characters were guys....But now I'm at Pixar, and there films are very much for the boys. I don't think it's a conscious thing, I just think they're making fillms they want to see.... Joe Ranft asked me to come up to Pixar to work on the female character in "Cars" to make her ring more "true." Pixar is something of a "boy's club", and little thought seems to have been given to female characters, even when it would have fit naturally. For example, why couldn't the Slinky or the T-Rex in Toy Story have been women? [Brenda's business card reads "Token female Pixar story person," but now that she's directing there aren't any women in Pixar's story department.]

Jenny Lerew: And aren't cars usually designated female, like ships. But almost all the cars in "Cars" are male.

[In another example of what some might consider job stereotyping, Jill recalled being assigned sequences involving the character Jessie in Toy Story 2 while she was at Pixar.]

Jill Culton: Studios worry about female characters, and they don't want stereotypes. Females can't be too pretty, but not ugly either. Can't be bookish, but can't be stupid. There are so many landmines. [My observation here was that, when a film only has one significant female character, then that character can't be allowed to be too distinct, because it's representing the entire gender.]

Geena Davis: Why can't the funny sidekicks be female? Then they could be anything creators wanted.

Jenny Lerew: Guys don't think about male/female ratios.

Jill Culton: "Open Season" started as two male animals in woods. One of the things we worked hard on is to give some originality to the "mother" character (Beth, voiced by Debra Messing), make her different...

Brenda Chapman: In the stage show of "Lion King," they made Rafiki a female. When I saw it I thought: "Why didn't I think of that?" (She credited Roger Allers for the change, but Allers said it was Julie Taymor.)

Geena Davis: It would be interesting if "Ice Age," were relooped with all female voices. Without changing the look, the characters could be all females. It would still work.

Fred Seibert: My first network pitch as a cartoon studio exec was to a woman. She said about one of the female characters, "make her breasts bigger," but she didn't use the word "breasts." I couldn't believe she was talking like that, and I thought maybe I should pack up my boxes in my office and go back to New York right there. And I remarked that I couldn't believe she was talking like that. And she said "Big [breasts]. Boys like 'em and girls want 'em."

For the Frederator shorts program, up until the last couple of years, I had maybe five pitches by women out of 5000. And four of those I had to beg the women to make. And the pitches weren't very good, probably because they weren't too enthusiastic about making them. But in the last two years, I've gotten hundreds of pitches from women under 35. So all of a sudden, the odds have gotten way better. [Out of the first 99 shorts greenlit, only one involved a female creator, and that was as part of a wife/husband team. Of the last 39 shorts greenlight, 8 were by 10 women creators.]

Some of the women's pitches are with males, some with females. One was about a babysitter. Not the usual story, with the babysitter being tied up and set on fire. Because she'd been a babysitter. What guy is going to think of the babysitter as a real character?

Women are going to make the changes in gender balance. It's not going to come from having gender balance in movies.

Jill Culton: It takes years to learn the craft. How do we get more women into the craft? Into the schools and colleges?

[No one had any great answers to this, except to again note that art departments and experimental animation programs are often predominantly female, yet there seems to be a disconnection in more industry-oriented programs. On the other hand, Jill noted that the last time she visited CalArts that there were many more females in the animation classes. Interestingly, it wasn't just more females, but especially Asian females, which she thought was likely related to the popularity of anime, and the higher esteem for animation, and female-driven stories, in Japan.]

Jill Culton: I think, yeah, women have to try harder when they get in the business. But if you're kick-ass good, they can't deny you. You're wearing the cloak of your talent...

Dean De Blois: We have to be conscious of the stories and the characters filling those stories.

Fred Seibert: If people want to change the world, they have to make their own films. I've been looking at a lot of indie films, over a thousand, and the people that make them have their own points of view. There are people out there doing it.

Geena: Boys and girls all go to see the same movies, they all share the same sandbox.

[I know the above contains some bits and pieces out of context, and without the ancillary comments from other panelists, but it's meant to give a sense of what was discussed. We then went on to Q&A with the audience, which was more about industry pros making some excellent points rather than really asking questions. The Chicago Tribune sent a reporter and a photographer to the event, so hopefully we'll see their take on the event soon.]

Addendum: If you click on Jenny Lerew's name above, you'll link to her panel recap on "The Blackwing Diaries." I was a little afraid when we posted these notes that, because there were grossly incomplete, they might give a false perception of the event. Given the choice to simply write "You had to be there," or try to provide our own summary of the thoughts and opinions of 7 different people, we chose to give you the notes we had. Unfortunately, those notes contain none of the nuance that one would have felt in person at the discussion, and it's easy for statements to sound harsher in print, or to take on a different valence.

When I first posted this I also failed to emphasize, as I think I've done repeatedly in the comments sections of related posts, that NONE of the women on the panel, or among the commenters in the audience, expressed a sense of having been discriminated against in the industry. Anyone who was expecting male bashing, or complaints about being mistreated by male coworkers or producers, would have been disappointed. The female panelists all expressed great praise and affection for the guys they work with. And several acknowledged that they, like their male counterparts, had themselves often not paid particular attention to creating more and better female characters.

There were also surprisingly few complaints about the system of animated filmmaking. Despite my proddings, we didn't hear stories of studio execs telling directors and story artists not to create female characters. Instead, the women who spoke during the discussion expressed a lot of pride and satisfaction in their work and the industry in general. There was really no "bashing" at all (well, Fred had some pretty harsh words for some of the powers that be, but he also sees that changing rapidly).

To my ears some of the themes I heard from the female creatives was the need to be more encouraging of other women, especially those thinking of entering the industry; that it would have been very gratifying to have grown up with some female characters to identify with; and that it would be nice to work on films where the female characters aren't usually afterthoughts. I hope some of the others who attended the panel can speak to what they got from the panel in the comments section.

The audience was at capacity even before the panel started.


Brenda Chapman and Jill Culton


Fred Seibert


Geena Davis and Kevin Koch



Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this- I loved reading it!

Reel Fanatic said...

Great stuff .. there is at least animation legend who consistently makes entertaining movies with engaging heroines .. Hayao Miyazaki

Kevin Koch said...

What's interesting about Miyazaki is that, if you read his interviews, he sounds far more extreme than anyone at See Jane regarding promoting gender balance and ending gender stereotyping. He has noted that there is precious little entertainment aimed at girls, and that what there is is generally vacuous at best.

It's not an accident that virtually all of his lead characters are female, or that his films are specifically aimed at 10-year old girls. What I find ironic is that some of the critics of our panel and of the See Jane effort try to use Miyazaki's films as examples that there really isn't a lack of gender balance. In fact, Miyazaki finds the imbalance so repugnant that he's actually dedicated himself to leading the change.

Unknown said...

I've mentioned it before (I think), but I think it's worth bringing up again.
In America 2D animation has always had a problem with gaining an adult audience and being taken seriously (3D seems not to currently have these same problems) so the intent is to try and appeal to the largest possible audience -obviously.
It seems clear that girls/women will go to an animated film whether it features female or male characters while boys/men will mosy likely ignore such a film if it has mostly female characters(even Miyazaki films - despit everyone's fondness for these films their BO is awful in the US). Is this because of the predominence of PRINCESS films over the years? Regardless of why I think this is the state of things (or has been).
And since this is really a business it seems to make business sense to try and stack the deck towards the audience that are the hardest to bring into the theaters and to take for granted the audience that will probably go regardless.
3D has a chance of reversing this - especially Pixar. Other than Dora I can't think of a decent female character in any of their films. Would Nemo have been as big a hit if all the genders had been reversed or at least the father had been a mother? It would be worth discussing.
DW has had more luck in that direction with the Shrek films though Fiona is just a girlfriend/princess she shares a large amount of story and screentime (though I'm not suggesting it's equal by any means). When i was on S2's story crew - which consisted of almost all men - I know there was a huge problem trying to keep Fiona alive and active in the story and consistent with the first Shrek and not have her as just the princess that needs her man to save her.
It would have definitely helped to have more women in the storycrew. My feeling is that if women want to see change in the types of films then they need to get into story and start working that way. I suspect that as Directors and Producers women are afraid to rock the boat and push an agenda. Those positions for anyone (women and men) are like walking a tightrope and I can see why this occurs, but in story it's often left to the individual story person to create secondary and background characters - not to mention how a fenmale lead could actually be more involved in the story.

that's my 2cents...

Kevin Koch said...

Steve, I still don't see much good evidence that Americans won't go to animated films if they feature female characters. Miyazaki's films are foreign films, and Americans have never gone to foreign films.

Films like Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Lilo and Stitch, Pocahontas all did just fine at the box office, while "boy character" films from around that time often tanked.

I think we see what we expect to see, and it's easy to use just a few pieces of data to convince ourselves that there are economic laws that can't be violated.

And, when so many animated characters aren't even human, why does it matter so much? Anyway, I agree with your discussion of how these films are made, and how useful it is to have a variety of perspectives on a story crew.

By the way, the other great female Pixar character is Mrs. Incredible.

Anonymous said...

> By the way, the other great female Pixar character is Mrs. Incredible.

I would add Edna Mode, Violet and Dory from Finding Nemo to that (admittedly short) list. And yes, those aren't leads, which is exactly the point See Jane is making -- gender parity will be reached when secondary female characters are as interesting as secondary male characters.

Jenny Lerew said...

Yes, Incredibles really is a foolproof screenplay in so many ways...the writer(we all know who that is, of course)is also a lifelong geek of superhero proportions, and a father and a most other guys in the business. But above all the guy likes to tell a great film story, and Edna is a terrific example of a character that I'd bet 98% of us(I include all of "us", male & female, in story)would have made male without much thought--the "Q" character, more or less.

Steve, you point point out some things very perceptively...I don't think of my job as walking a tightrope at work, beyond the same balancing act my male colleagues do also, but then again, as I noted before I did second and third guess myself about even doing the panel(something I'm not hugely proud of admitting, btw, but there it is). I'm not and I can't be a spokesman for "women in animation", all I can do is give my two cents. I'm glad I did it now, very glad.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of validity to the premise that girls will watch films featuring male characters while boys will not embrace female characters.
Girls mature at a much faster rate than boys do and young boys as a whole are left feeling that girls are "icky" because of this difference in maturity between the two sexes.

Unless the animation community finds a way to bolster the growth of young boys to catch up to that of young girls i'm afraid that movies featuring girls in prominent roles will not have as high a return as those with male leads which appeal to both boys and girls equally. As a whole the kids really don't have a choice as to which sex develops faster.

Unknown said...

Jenny, I didn't mean to imply that only women had this balancing act to perform....I think it's a balancing act for anyone who can move up to that level. Kudos to you for deciding to be on the panel despite the your concerns...I hope you don't receive any negativity because of it.

Kevin Koch said...

Anon, I really don't see the films with very few major female roles (the distinctly "boy" movies) doing consistently better than films with prominent female roles. In fact, it sort of seems like the opposite, if we look at domestic big-budget animated productions. At the very least, the track record in US feature animation of the last 20 seems to show that having a female lead doesn't lead to box office disaster, and that films with only male leads doesn't prevent it.

I'm sure if films like Iron Giant, Sinbad, Everyone's Hero, Treasure Planet, or Atlantis had female leads, this would be taken as proof that the general audience wants/requires male leads. But they didn't, and no one concluded that those films tanked because the lacked female leads.

By the way, just to prevent any silly responses attacking me for seeming to think the gender of the lead characters is an iron-clad correlate with box office success. . . I don't think that at all. The appeal and strength and subsequent success of a feature film are complex, ellusive qualities that can't be boiled down to the percentage of male or female characters. And THAT is my point. A lack of female roles in these films doesn't seem to help these films do any better, and anyone who thinks it does is probably making a mistake.

What's interesting in talking to some of the actual creators of some of these films is that NO ONE seems to actually be sitting around saying, "We gotta have male characters, 'cause boys won't watch girl characters." We've heard the one example of Chicken Little, and we've heard (at the panel Thursday night) of a toy company that felt that way, but none of the story artists or directors I've talked to have felt that mandate in their working life. In fact, Dean De Blois mentioned that in the story that was the genesis of Lilo and Stitch, the Lilo character was originally a boy, and as the story was developed he became a she.

Anonymous said...

I was just commenting on Geena Davis' statement:

"My theory -- and it's only a theory -- is that 'girls will watch stories about boys but boys won't watch stories about girls' "

Unknown said...

Kevin...I didn't mean to open a can of worms with my "girls will watch boys , but boys won't watch girls, etc comment", and I know that BO during the 80's show that it's likely not true as to features - TV is another thing altogether.
But I think since the success of LionKing if you look at the features that were greenlighted AFTER LK was so successful it seems clear that someone in charge at Disney wanted to catch that same 'male-centric' lightning in a bottle again (ie: Hercules, Tarzan, ENG, Atalantis and Treasure Planet -- Mulan, Pocahontas,HoND and Fabn=ntasia200 were all greenlit before BO for LK I believe).
It might be that they also were trying to go for a more adult audience and felt the way to do that was to go with male-centric stories (?) Even the Pixar films though skewing usually very young are all dominated by male-centric storylines and not one features a female main character - only as secondary characters.
I don't think that IF this was a pre-determined plan (not by those pitching ideas but by those greenlighting them) that it was a terribly successful plan - for 2D at least.
Anyway that's me trying to clarify my thinking...though I'm sure there's plenty wrong with it...

Kevin Koch said...

Steve and Anon, I hope I wasn't coming off as argumentative. Steve, I completely agree with most of what you're saying. I think it's important that we look at our assumptions, and question them, and I think this kind of discussion and debate is good for the industry.

I've been thinking more about the theory that Geena repeated (and it's a theory that many people hold), that "boys won't watch girl movies..." I do think there's some truth in it, BUT only if the movie is overwhelmingly, categorically a "girl movie."

I remember a few years ago Warners thought they had a winner with "The Little Princess." It went unnoticed when they first released it, so as I recall they gave it a re-release, with a bit more marketing. And it sank out of sight again. It seemed like a case that confirmed the above adage.

But then, if we look at the most successful animated films of the last 15 years, some of them have prominent girl leads, and clearly a large audience went to see them. Having great, complex female characters clearly doesn't hurt the box office of these films. I think one key may be that there needs to also be characters and elements for boys to relate to. In other words, the best movies usually have great male and female characters.

I'll say it again -- it's not a zero-sum game. Creating more female characters, and having them embody a wide variety of characters and types, does NOT have to come at the expense of male characters. And it doesn't come at the expense of good stories, either. In fact, I think it makes for better, more entertaining stories.

Meagan said...

Thank you so much for posting this online, TAG.

Good stories with good characters will go far, regardless of industry, regardless of intentional steering towards specific audiences.

I agree most with what Mr. Seibert said: (quoting from the post)
Fred Seibert: If people want to change the world, they have to make their own films. I've been looking at a lot of indie films, over a thousand, and the people that make them have their own points of view. There are people out there doing it.

I hope that this talk has helped to make people AWARE that there are plenty of female viewers (and participants) in animation. But ultimately, I say this to others (and especially to myself): Don't wait for others to fix what you forsee is an issue. Make your stand and then come up with a solution! As I'll phrase it, for a chuckle, "Put your footage where your mouth is." Cheers!

Celeste said...

The panel talked about the idea of “interesting character” as existing in the masculine realm. Jill said something about the problematic development of female character, which can’t be too extreme one way or the other. What is that about? Fat, skinny, goofy, dopey characters are usually male. Did this start in theatre when actors were all male, required to play the females roles, so it logically followed to have fewer female characters? Is this a canon long out-moded, yet one we still follow with blind devotion?

RedDiabla said...

I'm very peeved that I had to miss the panel, but I was busy...[i]working![/i]

Ah, the irony.

Celeste: methinks you're asking a chicken/egg question about women being too "extreme"(for lack of a better word). Was it films that decided that these extreme women were distasteful, or did society? Since women used to be way more repressed in what they were allowed to be job-wise, physically, etc. were films just reflecting that?

I myself think that women themselves are the key to turning that around. Support your non-bland sisters and the men will likely follow.

Celeste said...

Chickens and eggs. But since the eggs have no legs, the chickens gotta be the ones to move. By understanding and discussing our histories, we can take the responsibilty to change. It's great to have these panels and be opening all sorts of new avenues to travel.
Go team--

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